By Digital Multimedia Producer Suzanne Elliott
Their yachts the size of apartment blocks, football clubs, luxury flats in London’s most exclusive boroughs seized in a bid to decimate their wealth and with it their support for their president, Vladimir Putin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The term ‘oligarch’ has become an everyday part of our vocabulary and shorthand for unimaginable wealth made from shadowy dealings.
When do you go from being a rich Russian to being an oligarch? Is being an oligarch simply about money, or must you have the right power and influence?
What exactly is an oligarch?
Oligarchs aren’t always Russian, but the term has become synonymous with wealthy Russians with international lifestyles.
The term “oligarch” derives from the Ancient Greek oligarkhia meaning “the rule of the few” – someone who is part of a small group holding power in a state.
Oligarchies have traditionally been governing elites from a ruling caste – similar to the aristocracy – where economic success and political influence go hand-in-hand.
More recently, since their rise in the wake of the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, the term is commonly used in the Western press to describe Russian businessmen.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow became a breeding ground for billionaires, with this group of super rich business elites wielding disproportionate political power that gave them unparalleled influence to the government.
While the original oligarchs flourished under Boris Yeltsin, the new breeds’ political power has diminished under Putin.
“The term oligarch came from the nineties when you had a small group of super rich Russians who basically plundered the fall of the Soviet Union. They were very wealthy, but they also exercise political power over the Yeltsin administration,” Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, tells ITV News.
Mr Lieven continues: “That group does not exist anymore, they were either driven out or subjugated by Putin … (now) political power is held by a different oligarchy, mostly made up of the former secret service and associates who have been rewarded or who have rewarded themselves, with huge wealth as a result of their loyalty to Putin.”
How did they make their money?
Putin’s inner circle’s vast wealth “was pretty much allocated to them,” Mr Lieven says.
“They were placed by Putin in positions of some authority over sections of the Russian economy.
“(Igor) Sechin is the richest of them because he was put in charge of the Rosneft oil company. They have also been able to place their children in leading positions.”Writing in The Conversation, Stanislav Markus, Associate Professor of International Business, University of South Carolina, said: “Putin enabled a new breed of oligarch who made their money through the sale of public sectors and largely owe their enormous wealth to him. “
According to Mr Stanislav, these heavyweight businessmen made their fortune by ripping off the government.
“Private suppliers in many sectors such as infrastructure, defence and health care would overcharge the government at prices many times the market rate, offering kickbacks to the state officials involved,” he wrote.
Do they have control over the Kremlin
Putin has largely curtailed the oligarchs’ political influence since he came to power. Instead the Russian president likes to keep a small circle around him – known as the ‘siloviki’ or ‘men of force’.
These include Igor Sechin, the Chief Executive of Rosneft, a Russian state oil company and particularly close and influential ally of Putin who has been sanctioned by the UK, US and EU, and Alexei Miller, CEO of energy company Gazprom, who served under Putin in the 1990s when Putin was deputy mayor in St Petersburg. Miller has been sanctioned by the US and the UK.
What are their links with Putin?
Many of Putin’s close associates from his St Petersburg days have been promoted to influential political and business posts.Putin has known many of his inner circle for decades. He has worked with Sechin, for example since the early 1990s, when Sechin was chief of staff and Putin the deputy mayor of St Petersburg in 1994. Mr Miller worked under Mr Putin in the St Petersburg government in the early 1990s.
Will oligarch sanctions stop the war in Ukraine?
Sanctions against the oligarchs could decimate their wealth, but will this be enough to put pressure on Putin to stop the war?Some oligarchs have spoken out against the war, including Alfa Group Chairman Mikhail Fridman and metals magnate Oleg Deripaska.
While it may weaken the grip of the Kremlin over elites, Mr Lieven does not think sanctions are likely to “have any any effect at all”.
But he does says it is likely to lead to “some very unhappy people” especially as they are being squeezed personally, but also suffering financially from the collapse of the Russian economy.
(Sources : itv.com)